Robert took an amazing side trip last week on his way back to Aceh Timur from Banda Aceh where JMD’s headquarters is. We asked him to see if he could get to the newest Rohingya camp, in the village of Bayeun, so he spent two days at the camp before heading south to Simpang Jernih.
He was so busy getting information and talking to aid workers and Refugees that he seems to have forgotten to send me any photos! I am hoping they come soon.
Robert has been a field worker in this area for a long time, and since JMD has worked with Rohingya before in Aceh Timur, Robert was asked to be part of a “volunteers meeting” to discuss future projects and programs for the refugees. Apparently there are several aid agencies working in this camp now, thanks I believe in no small part to the recent publicity given this issue by world media and celebrity support from Matt Dillon. In fact, JMD Board member Lilianne, who was also at the camp with her own NGO Yayasan Geutanyoe, let me know that Matt is still committed to seeing that justice is done for these stateless people who have been driven out of Myanmar. He’s the only celebrity addressing this issue who is brave enough to come out and say that what Myanmar is doing to its people is tantamount to ethnic cleansing.
Two recent articles (US News and the New York Times) are helping keep the pressure on. Though I’m a cynic, in that I don’t think Myanmar will do anything and it will be up to the other ASEAN nations to accommodate the Rohingya.
Matt Dillon on the Rohingya: 'It Really Seems as if Nobody Wants Them'
--The actor visited Myanmar to experience the plight of the long-persecuted Muslim group.
Myanmar to Bar Rohingya From Fleeing, but Won’t Address Their Plight
SITTWE, Myanmar — The government of Myanmar says it is determined to stop the departures of migrants fleeing religious persecution in places like this bitterly divided port city, but it will not budge in its refusal to address the conditions driving the exodus across the sea.
The government insists that most of the migrants do not belong in Myanmar, referring to them as Bengalis, and says it has no plans to alter policies that strip them of basic rights and confine more than 140,000 to a crowded, squalid government camp here. “There is no change in the government’s policy toward the Bengalis,” U Zaw Htay, a deputy director general of the Myanmar president’s office, said in an interview this week.
But back to the camp in Aceh, where the provincial government has sent representatives from social services, health and disaster ministries to work with UNHCR and local NGOs, volunteers and community members to assist the refugees. The Aceh Social Services Department is preparing all the meals at the camp, and UNHCR and IOM are taking care of refugee health.
IOM has helped build some sanitary latrines at the camp as well. Robert reports that there are two groups of Rohingya at this camp: those from Myanmar and those from Bangladesh. The political asylum seekers (Myanmar) will be accommodated for up to a year in the camp, while those seeking economic asylum from Bangladesh will soon be sent back to their country.
After the year is up, no one is yet sure what will happen.
Robert had a chance to interview Ali, one of the refugees who speaks Malay. Ali told Robert that no one wants to return to Myanmar because “we will be slaughtered there.” They will be shot when they pray or, if they aren’t so lucky, will be burned alive. Ali told Robert that although they didn’t have a clear destination in mind when they left, they were grateful that the Acehnese and volunteers were willing to accept them and help them.
Ali told Robert that most of the refugees’ livelihoods in Myanmar consisted of fishing, farming, and construction labor, which is probably the type of work that most will look for if they stay in Aceh.
Although Ali reports that most refugees are happy at the camp, it appears that they would like to have more productive activities. Currently they pray, help keep the camp clean, and assist volunteers with translation and health clinic duties. For this reason Yayasan Geutanyoe is developing a project that will hopefully engage the fishermen who originally rescued the refugees; they will teach both male and female refugees how to make and repair fishing nets—an activity that can be accomplished in the minimal space provided in the camp. Also, since it will be initiated next month during Ramadan, it will be a good, non-tiring activity for those who fast during the day. It will also give the fishermen a bit more recognition than they have received so far; after all, they are the ones who defied orders to save the lives of hundreds of these people when no one else would.
Robert also found out that if JMD offered a type of field school training to learn seed propagation, grafting and cocoa/cash crop farming, the refugees would eagerly participate. So there’s a future thought . . . if the Rohingya will be staying in Aceh, which we don’t know yet.
Robert did have the chance to talk with the Bupati’s Assistant, who has been assigned as the coordinator for the camp, and who told him that as of now, the Aceh government is not planning to either build permanent housing for the refugees or relocate them somewhere else, which could be good news . . . or not so good new, depending on how you look at it.
More information is coming from Robert, who has arrived in Simpang Jernih now and is back with his cocoa farmers, but he still has ore info on the cap (and hopefully a photo or two) which I will share with you shortly.